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Public Roads - November/December 2001

Internet Watch

Internet Watch

by Betsy Joyce

The Print-to-Web Evolution and the Importance of Usability

Until recently, the primary way to share information with the masses was to publish it in magazines, newspapers, and newsletters or to broadcast it over the radio or on television. Even a couple of years ago, most printed publications were not available online, though perhaps a contact from whom a printed copy could be obtained might have been offered online. As bandwidth and Internet usage has increased, more and more publications became available online as well as in print.

More recently, we are seeing publications whose primary medium of distribution is the Web and for which print versions are secondary or maybe even non-existent. Increasingly, people are making the Internet their first stop to seek information, and that is encouraging many publishers to go "Web first" or "Web only." Of course, these Web publishers are also influenced by the relative ease, speed, and cost-effectiveness of getting the information "out there" online. Not only can information in its original form be more quickly and less expensively disseminated via the Internet, but additions, changes, and updates are relatively easy to make on the Web and are practically impossible to do in a timely or inexpensive way in hardcopy publishing.

The tragic events of Sept. 11 provide a good example. On that day, many Americans went to the Internet to find the latest news about the attacks. They were seeking quick and up-to-date news about the crashes, the victims, the government's reaction, and so forth. Many of the news sites found that the high volume of Internet traffic was more than their servers could handle; many sites were inaccessible during the first few hours after the attacks. News sites had to be modified quickly to provide information to the public in the most rapid and concise manner. This meant removing many graphics, photographs, and video clips to slim down the size of their files so that downloading time could be reduced. Within hours, sites were better able to accommodate the increased traffic.

About five years ago, the only "web" that most Americans were familiar with was a spider web or the web of a baseball mitt; however, today, about 150 million Americans use the Internet and the World Wide Web. Studies and industry experts state that data traffic carried by network service providers has increased 30 percent to 40 percent over the past year (Interactive Week, Sept. 24, 2001). This rapid increase has led to more problems with congestion during times of high traffic during an average day.

We are now finding that the print-to-Web evolution is more than simply providing information online; it is the changing way that information is presented. Information on the Internet cannot be presented in the same manner as in print.

As a result of new and growing technology, our attention spans appear to have shrunk significantly, especially when it comes to the Internet. Research has shown that users often will not continue to navigate through a site if the time to move from one page to another within the site is more than one second (Nielsen). Slow downloading often lowers the level of trust the user has in the site and ultimately can cause lost traffic as users gravitate to faster sites. Sites must be user-friendly to capture visitors and to keep them.

So, what's all this got to do with you? Most of the readers of Public Roads are responsible for providing some content to some Web site. If you want your content to be read, you need to do your part to make sure that it is useable. Usability includes many aspects of design, including the way content is written, navigation, graphics, and the overall speed of the site. According to Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen, highly regarded as one of the leading experts on Web usability, there are three main guidelines for writing for the Web:

  • Be succinct. Write no more than 50 percent of the text you would have used to cover the same material in a print publication.
  • Write for scannability. Don't require users to read long continuous blocks of text; instead, use short paragraphs, subheadings, and bulleted lists.
  • Use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages.

To learn more about writing for the Web, the following resources are recommended:


Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, O'Reilly, March 1998.

Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen, New Riders Publishing, 2000.

Don't Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug and Roger Black, 1st Edition, New Riders Publishing, Oct. 13, 2000.

Web Sites: (Jakob Nielsen) (Usable Web) (Web Monkey) Cancer Institute's Guide for Online Usability) (GSA, Section 508, The Road to Accessibility)

Betsy Joyce is the webmaster for the Federal Highway Administration's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va. She is employed by Avalon Integrated Services Corp. of Arlington, Va.